Milking It

A proposed federal law riles raw-milk proponents in Idaho.

Jared Howerton drives down a winding, single-lane dirt road on a 300-acre farm in North Idaho surrounded by tall pine trees and open highway. He stops into a musty-smelling basement filled with mismatched refrigerators, where he retrieves three barely labeled half-gallon jars of raw, unpasteurized milk. He puts them in the rear of his Volkswagen Rabbit and slams the hatchback closed.

Howerton, wearing a beanie, says the milk is healthier than its grocery store counterpart and helps him stick it to the man — greedy corporations, industrialized agriculture, Republicans.

His farmer, Luana Hiebert, calls herself a conservative, however, and says the same product helps her fight big government.

The politics of raw milk. Hiebert, short with a raspy voice, says she grew up working this land. She and her husband, Wilbur, sell raw milk from Heritage Farms, their business near Cocolalla, Idaho, through a herdshare program, in which customers pay for the care of the cows and get milk in exchange. In recent years, the couple has lobbied legislators in Idaho for decreased regulation of unpasteurized milk and is encouraging their customers to attend a meeting next week hosted by Kootenai County’s Republican Party.

Up for discussion is a bill introduced into Congress by current presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, which would legalize the sale of unpasteurized milk across state borders. Raw milk is outlawed in some states and fiercely regulated in others.

Bjorn Handeen, chairman of the county GOP’s legislative subcommittee, says most interest in the discussion has come from what he calls the “crunchy conservative” movement — a small, dedicated group of people who want the government’s hands off more than just their healthcare.

“A big part of conservatism means ‘local is better,’” Handeen says.

The argument over raw milk isn’t a new one. Supporters have long said that the unpasteurized product holds onto healthy enzymes that are lost when milk is heated, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says pasteurization also kills the bacteria that cause E. coli, salmonella and other illnesses.

A state inspector visits Heritage Farm each month to check the milk, and the Hieberts say they don’t have a problem with that. They just wish it were easier to sell and distribute.

Mike and Trish Vieira, owners of Spokane Family Farm on the West Plains, say they wouldn’t risk selling raw milk to their customers. The Vieiras sell low-heat pasteurized milk, which is heated to 145 degrees instead of the usual 285, which they say improves taste but keeps the milk safe.

Mike Vieira says even his anti-government tendencies and his 20 years of experience in the dairy industry can’t ensure the milk is safe without some pasteurization.

“The government is over-involved in a lot of things, but this is a food safety issue,” he says. “Do I think they should be allowed to sell raw milk? Sure. But the consumer better be educated.”

At Heritage Farm, though, the Hieberts say they trust the milk that goes from their cows through a crude metal filter and directly into jars in their refrigerator more than anything they can buy at the store.

“I don’t think the government has any right telling us what we can eat and what we can’t,” Luana Hiebert says. “We think it’s the most perfect food there is.”

The town hall meeting is at 6 pm, June 22, at the Coeur d’Alene Public Library.

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About The Author

Heidi Groover

Heidi Groover is a staff writer at the Inlander, where she covers city government and drug policy. On the job, she's spent time with prostitutes, "street kids," marriage equality advocates and the family of a 16-year-old organ donor...